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January 21st, 2010

Social Media as the ‘Last Mile’ – Part 3 – Scaling

It’s time for Part Three (see Parts 1 and 2 for reference): Scaling.

Here’s the point I raised in Part 1: Building infrastructure to serve a large market is tough, just ask the telcos. The same goes for corporate interactions with customers.

This actually goes both ways. It’s tough for social media to scale up or down. One of the core principles of a social media program is listening and responding (or ‘conversation’ as the kids call it). Conversation takes resources, people and time…and if you’re a large brand using one of the monitoring tools it takes money. That’s not to say people and time aren’t money, they are.

For a corporation it’s about scaling up, putting more people on the job. For the small business it’s about scaling down, or carving out the time from your already busy day to spend time interacting online.

Let’s go big first. It’s simple math, the larger the corporation, the more time that needs to be spent if you’re moving down that road. Yes, the monitoring tools can do a good job of aggregating and sorting the discussions, but it still takes people to review and respond.

Scaling Up: Aligning Internal Resources

An additional issue with large-scale corporate social media programs is internal comms getting in the way of ‘conversation’. This builds upon the internal war problem I talked about before. Traversing internal business unit communications is tough, now try to go across business units.

There is the standard cliche that customers don’t care about your internal org chart. Externally they see you has Brand X and they expect you to act like a single entity, but as those involved in large-scale corporate work know that’s the furthest thing from the truth. Now some folks will get all preachy and say ‘this has got to change’ and pound their fists, but this is a reality and it’s going to take a while to fix…a long while.

Internal social media leaders continue to work to break down those barriers, rooting out contacts at different divisions to help answer questions, but once again it’s just something that will take a while to develop. As social media programs expand internally the external interactions will benefit, but head-count doesn’t appear overnight, think more along the lines of fiscal-year.

With all these issues, comms, budget, head-count it’s a slow process. What’s funny though is that it may take a while to get there, but once it’s there, folks seem to forget the past. Getting back to the telco analogy. I remember when Verizon put the first FiOS trunk in our neighborhood. It then seemed to take forever for the build out to complete. But eventually that build out was done and once the service started to flow, I forgot about the wait.

Now let’s go small. How do you shoe-horn social media into a small business? In some ways this is tougher, especially if you’re in a market that does not have a high adoption of social media/networks among users. Large brands benefit from their existing inertia. Social media can build upon audiences and communication channels already in place.

Scaling Down: Making it Manageable

A local civic organization recently approached me and asked what they should be doing online. I provided some counsel, but considering all the factors involved: budget, market, target audience, etc, I had a tough time really justifying a significant use of social media.

What has worked for them has been offline social media….or in other words actual human interactions via community events like chamber of commerce meetings. I’m hard-pressed to say abandon that and move online.

With small staffs and small budgets, smaller organizations often can’t provide the necessary planning and attention to run what could be a successful program.

The other major road block is measurement. They often don’t have adequate measurement of their existing marketing and communication efforts. Without benchmarks it’s difficult to say what is a better use or resources, attending a local civic function for one hour, or spending that hour interacting online.

Taking that a step further, if they have that one hour, how much of that time goes into measurement, probably not much? Measurement is always the first thing to get cut.

Succes stories with small businesses using social media usually involve an interesting product or novel idea (think Kogi). How do you bring that same excitement to fund-raising for a local medical clinic? It’s tough.

Whether you’re trying to scale up or down, there is no magic bullet or plan. It’s always a unique process that needs to build upon the strengths and weaknesses of the organization (small or large). Having experience always helps. Of course you can’t just replicate a plan from one org to another, but you can learn from what has worked and not worked in similar situations.

Next time you hear somebody say, “You should listen to your customers, and have conversations with them.” at a conference, remember it’s not as easy as it sounds.

About the Author
Josh Hallett leads up the Voce Connect Client Services team, managing the care and feeding of clients and developing social media strategies with the rest of the team. You can also read his personal Hyku blog and follow him on Twitter @hyku.

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